I never thought I’d say the words, “My husband is dead.” Really, does anyone? 16 years of joy, laughter, dreams, trailblazing, children, and love — so much love, all came crashing down in the space of 13 months. The illness itself remains unnamed, but it exacerbated other conditions and created new ones. Any one on its own would have been enough, but his death was orchestrated, organized, and inevitable. We thought we had years. We didn’t know we had only months.
I took him to the ER for pain one night and a week later he died of organ failure. I held his hand counting the increasing seconds between his breaths. He had brought me so much joy and so much healing in our life together, but in that moment I felt inadequate for him. I wasn’t enough to save him.
I said goodbye. I kissed him. I stroked his hair. I panicked and ran for the door and stumbled into the young nurse coming in to the room. I broke down and wept. All I could say is, “He’s gone! He’s gone! He’s gone!”
She got her stethoscope and listened intently. She looked at me and nodded with an ethereal kindness and compassion. “I’ll get my supervisor.”
He came, examined, and concurred. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I called my husband’s father. I’d promised I would. Voicemail. I called his sister and again, all I could say is “He gone.” Then I called my mother. Do grown men still need their mothers? They do.”He’s gone, mother, he’s gone.” I wept.
I found out later from the chaplain that I would need to have his body moved right away. There was no morgue at the hospital. Again, there was feeling of panic. This was such an important decision and everyone had been telling me that I had time. I no longer had that time. I scrambled through the sitting area of his room. I was looking for the list that Hospice had left me. Hospice. I hadn’t called them. I dialed. They would have some one out right away.
I found the list and reviewed family funeral homes, bargain crematoriums, and those run by corporate death. I settled on one in between and that random selection ended up being the perfect choice. The funeral director called me back promptly. Her voice was calm and reassuring. She made no assumptions, but asked if I’d like to hear about what they could offer — and that even if I chose not to use their services they would be sure his body was taken care of until I had made my choice. We settled on services and she assured me that her team would be there within a couple of hours.
The hospice worker who’d arrived hugged me. The nurse asked if it was okay if they prepared the body. I acknowledged and they proceded ever so gently. They quickly and respectfully removed every montitor and the IV line. They reclined him flat and pulled the sheets up around him and smoothed them ever so perfectly. They smoothed his hair so that he looked as handsome as he always had. The nurse and the social worker hugged me. They told me I didn’t need to wait on the funeral home. They told me I had done all I needed to do. They told me to take my time.
And take my time I did. I gazed on his sweet and beautiful face. I traced every one of our sixteen years together — the laughter, the tears, every moment we took on the world together. Would I ever be that strong again? I ran my fingers through his hair smoothing it even more so that the part was perfect. I told him again how much I loved him. I kissed his forehead, already cold to the touch, and then one last proper kiss.
I left the room walking backwards. I looked at him as long as I could. This was it. These would be my last memories. Had I done them right? Would I be able to recall them all? Was it enough to honor him? Was it enough? I slipped out the door and closed it ever so softly. I turned to walk to the elevator. Every step was labored. Somewhere in the background I heard the nurse say, “We’ll watch over him until they come.” I acknowledged her with a grateful nod. I think I acknowledged her. The tears started again as I started driving and they didn’t stop. They haven’t stopped. I still cry every morning on the way to work. The commute allows me time to lose my composure, and then rebuild it with a resolve for the day.
The Awkwardness of Grief
Grief is an awkward state. There are so many details that need tending, so many loose ends to wrap up. Every conversation begins with, “I recently lost my husband,” or, “My husband died early this year.” People are unsure how to respond. No has ever prepared them to have grace in such a difficult circumstance. As I spoke with billing representatives trying to settle his medical bills, their ability to cope with such a circumstance ran the gamut. Some immediately acknowledged that they were sorry for my loss. Others never mentioned it. After all, grief is unpleasant. They rushed to get off the call as quickly as they could. Why should they be in the moment with someone who is grieving? I will teach my children better.
One of the questions I get asked so often is, “How are you?” I panic every time. I survey the social situation to determine my best response. Do they really want to know? Not always. But lately, I’ve decided that I can only be authentic in my response to that question. No. No, I am not okay. I may never again be okay. I cobble together all of the broken pieces and fix them the best I can to get through the day. I let them fall apart again once I’m home. On my very best days I’m damaged. On my worst days I am destroyed.
There are so many well-intentioned comments, but they ultimately land flat. “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” I don’t know. I don’t know what to do much less what you can do. So of course, I’m not going to call and ask for anything. I have to remind myself that it’s coming from a place of compassion. Sometimes I just want to say, “If you see something that needs to be done, just do it!” Of course I would be horrified to be seen as ungrateful. So I dutifully nod and say thank you.
Finally, there are those who feel the need to try to soothe the situation with pithy sayings. “He’s in a better place,” “God called him home early,” or “Heaven needed another angel.” I hate each and every one of these sentiments. What better place could there be than with his family? How could a deity be so bored that he would take the love of my life from me? And seriously, I’m betting that there are quite enough angels to go around at this point. None of it makes up for the fact that the love my life was ripped away from me and my children far too early.
The Single Parent
Our children. Two of the most beautiful, smart, funny and delightfully irritating little girls on the planet. I’ll never forget sitting on the back stoop of the first house my husband and I shared together talking about the dream of having children. The long pause, and then the look directly at each other when we both said “Let’s make a family.”
What were we thinking? At the time, we couldn’t even be legally married in our home state. Surrogacy was a new option, but none of the laws around it addressed two men having a baby in our state. There, in that moment, we resolved to make it happen. As with anything we resolved to do, nothing would stand in our way. They were 8 and 5 when he died. When I knew the trajectory of his disease and while he was still lucid, I brought them to him. They hugged him. They kissed him. They told him they loved him. He looked them each in the eye and told them how much he loved them. That was their last memory. I hope I gave them enough.
Now, the three of us are left to navigate this together. We have our good days, and we have our bad days. As I’ve dealt with schooling and extracurricular activities for them, I’ve discovered some interesting aspects about parenting. Public schools are designed around families that have two parents and only one who works — preferably the man. They assume all involvement outside of the car rider line will be done by women. Life is made harder for parents who both work. Then, for those of us who are single parents, life gets exponentially harder. Even before anyone knows your story, especially if you’re a man, they assume you’ve done something to destroy the family unit you once had. They look at you and your children with pity. As if to say, “You’ll never get it together enough for them to be successful.” Or even say things, like “Children of single parents are not usually as successful . . .” I’m here to prove them wrong.
Did the best of me die with him?
I miss joy. Don’t get me wrong, I do get a sense of joy from my children. I love to watch them achieve something new. I love to hear their stories, their likes, their dislikes, and to hear all about the days they have. But I miss the unfettered and boundless joy my husband created any time he was around. Over the years, he became more than just my husband. He was my best friend. He was my confidant. He knew all of my secrets and loved me nonetheless. We always laughed and said that we should never say that we complete each other. It was up to us to complete ourselves. But what he did was bring out the very best of me. He made me want to be a better person. He brought lightning to my dreams and took the time to dream them with me. He shared his dreams with me and took me along for the ride. Even my worst days with him were the best days of my life. I wanted nothing more than to spend my time with him before each day began and when each day ended.
We were to grow old together. We had just started to make our retirement plan — looking at property on Kauai’i and looking at a pied-à-terre in New York. We were leaving open a third option with which to split our time depending on where our girls landed as adults. All of that is now on hold. Or done. I just don’t know which anymore.
Now life is about silence, solitude, and contemplation. People often say, “You’ll get through it.” I find that such an odd phrase. “You’ll find a way to move on.” But how can I leave him? How can I do anything other than what we had done together? During a time when we were doing some financial planning, before he knew just how sick he was, he told me, “If I die before you, I want you to find someone and be happy.” The thing is, I had found someone. I was happy. I was happier than I had ever been in my life. From our very first date, when he had leaned agains the brick wall in the bar where we were playing pool, his boot cocked on the wall in his tight, white sweater, and he said to me, “Do you think you could ever let anyone in enough to be in love?” It was in that very moment that I cried out inside, from the depths of my soul, “Yes!” I chose that night to let him in. I chose to tell him my secrets. I chose to be vulnerable, honest, and I fell completely in love.
What’s next? I don’t know. What I do know is that my focus has to be on my children and my work. And if that’s all there ever is, I’m okay. After all, I had it really good. I had 16 years of bliss. Some poor souls never even get one. I have loved deeper than I ever thought possible and I have laughed until I cried. My husband is in my heart, and always will be. Perhaps there will be no one to hold my hand when I die. That’s ok. I’ll wrap my hands gently around the memories we shared and hold them close.
For now, what I know is that this pain, this pain is permanent. This grief, this grief is forever.